The Jacaranda Letters

This story came from scraps of a conversation I overheard when I was a child, when I didn’t pay much attention to these things.

I wrote to my Great Aunt Helen infrequently when I was a child on a tea estate in Bangladesh and also as a young teenager in England. I was delighted to get her aerogramme replies, addressed in her large round hand, full of stories, lively tales of her life and lots of questions about mine.

I never met her.


My father told me she was popular; attractive, intelligent and good at making people laugh. My grandmother, her sister, I saw a great deal more. Plain, practical and down to earth, she bred Alsatian dogs, and was admired for producing wonderful meals for any number of unexpected – and very hungry – visitors. Her husband, my grandfather, died long before I was born. The two of them are in a few photographs together; they stand next to each other, but there seems no connection between them.

One day I heard my father say something about Helen having been the one my grandfather had wanted to marry, but her mother had prevented this. I have no recollection of context or detail but when I asked him about it later, he brushed it aside. And that was that.

Fifty years later, I asked my husband who was going through the town where Helen had lived to try to find her house. He came back with a description of a large building that had seen better days, lived in by the adopted daughter of the friends who had bought it, and allowed Helen to end her days there. She was the Headmistress of the school where Helen had worked.

The story of Helen’s broken heart lives on. My husband heard the story from more than one person, and says that even today a sadness hangs in the air. This, then, is the core of this book. I have made up a great deal, and changed the ending to suit my purposes but at heart it is Helen’s story. I hope readers will forgive me the licence I have taken with places and people, and if there are any inaccuracies with time and place and seasons and events, please let me know..

In the book, Julia MacCleod finds letters to her grandmother Kate from her sister Helen, who lived in 1930s colonial India at the beck and call of her mother Evangeline Armstrong. Written by an intelligent woman stifled by the rigid orthodoxy of the British Raj, the letters hint at unspoken resentments and a secret with life-changing consequences.

Julia leaves her unsatisfactory marriage and gets a job with Hari Dhawan, a glamorous and much-admired Indian novelist, used to getting his own way. Intrigued by the letters, they visit India together, where they discover that Helen was able to make an unorthodox life for herself beyond the constraints imposed by race and class.

Hari and Julia start a relationship which founders when, emboldened by Helen’s example, she resists his demands to return to their London life. A serious car accident makes them evaluate their priorities.